A few months back, I started hearing voices. Not God or Satan, nothing like that. I heard my parents. They’re still alive and live a couple of thousand miles away, so I knew it wasn’t really them. And they weren’t saying anything, not really.
I heard phrases that they’d said often in the past, shit like "…brush your teeth?", "wear sweater", bits and fragments of full sentences. But these were just phrases. They "came in" right where some other sound stopped. A perfect blend from a coin drop to my father’s voice asking about summer vacation. Shit that I’d heard countless times in the past was now swimming up, maybe from the subconscious, and pulling up with it an audio memory.
I went to the doctor, he said it’s perfectly normal to hear the voices of our loved ones. Especially if I knew, in my heart, that this was a memory and I wasn’t actually hearing voices. Yeah, that’s what it was.
Sadly, I heard it again a few days later. A car coming to a stop a bit too suddenly on the streets of Seattle. And then a scream of "help!" streamed through my conscious mind. No memory, this one, or certainly not mine.
Went to the doctors again. Got scheduled for an MRI in a damn hurry. In and out I went. They didn’t see anything. Came back with a pristine bill of health. As the doc told me this, I heard a muffled scream.
"Muffled". The word, the realization came to me a few days after that doctor’s visit. The scream was muffled.
I thought back. The first time the screams came was last week, twelve days back.
I spent that entire time in Seattle.
We’d moved downtown two years back, but I still hadn’t bothered to change doctors yet. A trip across 520, back to the Eastside, wasn’t much of an inconvenience.
The first time in two weeks that I was outside the city, the screams were muffled, were quieter.
I pulled up my activity tracker. It recorded steps, but I also had it track my location. It was a nifty feature that knew which routes were a more intense workout and which were better for a relaxing stroll, and depending on my mood would direct me as appropriate.
I opened the app, hit the map, and it plotted a pretty concentrated pattern. I mostly stayed close to work and my apartment, a region of the city just a few blocks in size.
It was a busy time at work and my significant other was on a trip.
But when I went to see my doctor, the screams sounded far away. Fuck.
I opened the tracker app and went through its menus, the ones I used all of once to setup the tracker, then didn’t care about.
There was an option to track arbitrary data, something I could provide it on my own schedule. I turned this on and added a new category: SCREAMS.
Over the next few days I walked all over Seattle and tried to listen for the screams. Whenever I heard that plea, that desperate "help me!", I rated it on a relative scale. The SCREAMS around my place were about a 4 out of 10. At the Bellevue doctor’s I heard about a 2.
The screams weren’t always there. I couldn’t make them come. But I could make it more likely to hear them.
Ever since I started hearing my parents, I noticed that they really started to chatter at night. When I was trying to fall asleep. Every small sound, every movement of every individual hair, it all fed into machine between my ears and out came the predictable and often-repeated phrases. For a while I went to bed with music playing through my phone’s tiny speakers. Lyrics and melody, they tended to push the voices out. I quickly started to pump my head full of music. It helped, some.
So for today’s experimentation, I decided to do away with the headphones and faced the world without my armor. I walked the streets and listened to them. Paid attention to every conversation around me, all the small and imperceptible sounds, the random chatter of construction sites, the bicycle tires moving swiftly on the pavement.
The screams came, I listened, rated, and entered them into the app.
It took a while for the pattern to emerge. It was late evening by the time I found my way to the tall apartment building in the part of the city I never frequented. "Projects", I’d heard that type of building referred to. It was tall, and wide, three separate entryways looked out onto the street. Three tall apartment buildings pushed together, is what it looked like.
I walked by the first and the screams came, loud and sudden. It was a sudden thing, like waking up to find a bucket of ice water all over you.
The second entrance was a couple hundred feet beyond. I was feeling woozy.
"Help…" the scream came through my head, like a chef’s knife, slowly slicing through sinew and bone. I shook my head and continued.
There were eyes on me, now, but I didn’t care. Couldn’t. I knew I was getting close. Closer.
"Help!" the scream shot in my ear, or seemed to. Was it still an auditory hallucination?
I looked around. The closest half dozen people all looked at me, puzzled faces wondering what this outsider was doing. Another high idiot? Lost Casanova?
I faced the third entryway. "Help!" it came again, and I winced in pain.
Headphones, my own voice finally spoke up. I pulled out the pair I’d gotten accustomed to keeping in my jacket, turned them on and paired them to my phone, then jumped straight into The Wall. Waters’ pain drowned out the other.
I walked to the apartment building, pulled on the door and found it open, just as a delivery guy walked into me. I mumbled an apology and went inside the lobby.
I faced a hallway, elevators on either side, door on the far side leading towards the stairs. I walked to the elevators and waited.
"HELP!" the scream shook me to my core. It once again came from all over, but this time I heard a difference. I heard direction. I was close enough, perhaps, to the source, to feel where it was coming from.
The stairway at the end of the hall.
I walked over to the door. It was painted metal, some scratched up shade of gray, with a glass and wire-mesh window. I opened it. Beyond the door were stairs, down. I walked a step, two, toward the staircase. There was a sound behind me, so I turned toward back the hallway.
A woman had followed me in from the outside. She stood by the elevators, her phone in her hands. "Are you OK?" she asked. "Need me to call an ambulance?"
HELP!!! the screams cut through the fabric of reality and exploded my head. I heard the voice of god and my human mind could not contain that infinity.
My knees buckled and I fell, away from the hallway and toward the basement.
Everything hurt. Everything except my right arm. Everything hurt but that.
I came to slowly, groggily. One side of my face was cold, frozen and on fire at the same time.
I opened my eyes and couldn’t see a thing. I tried moving and pain exploded all over. But I could feel my legs move, and my shoulders push back against something solid. A wall?
A wall on one side, a cement floor beneath me. I began to once again feel my body. I began to remember.
It was the scream that sent me here. I fell and blacked out. Was this the basement?
I looked around. It wasn’t as dark as I thought at first. I could see dim shapes: walls, floor, stairs. I took them in, watched them for a bit.
Then I flopped over and pain made me almost black out. I was on my back now, and lay there for a while, my eyes shut in pain.
Opened them, and saw clouds. Trees, the moon, stars. I stared up and tried to figure out what this was.
Did I sleep through World War 3? Was I hallucinating?
I looked to the side. There was the wall, the staircase to nowhere, and just beyond it were two trees, and further on I saw clouds and the top of a different building.
I lay there for a while and pushed at random appendages. My right arm was pinned underneath me, must have been like that for a while, as feeling had gone out of it and it was numb. Now that I was flopping around, it had awakened with a start and brought with it yet another level of pain. I gritted my teeth through it and tried not to think about my predicament. One thing at a time.
Eventually I sat up. The building around me was still being built. This lower floor was laid, the walls in place, but this was just the start. The construction was not yet complete.
There was an incomplete pillar next to me, so I reached for its top and pulled my self up. My legs were still messed up, in pain, so I leaned on the pillar for support.
Inside the pillar was a man. A rope bound his wrists behind his back. A wad of white cloth was in his mouth, held in place by another such piece that was tied around his head.
He looked dead. If my legs could work, I would have run away. In my present condition, the best I could manage was to fall down on the floor, again, hard.
"Fuck!" I screamed, and scampered back, away from the damn pillar, toward the staircase to nowhere.
A muffled sound came from the direction of the pillar. The sound that I had heard this past week. It was there, somewhere. The cloth kept it to a faint roar, but it was the same angry yell I’d heard before.
I got up on all fours, then gingerly stood up and walked over to the pillar. The man inside was moving, screaming through the cloth, wriggling in vain, hoping to get free. I reached for the ropes that bound his hands. The man jerked in fear at that, but then eagerly thrust his hands toward me after a moment. His head came down, he closed his eyes and I thought he began to pray. Or cry.
I found the knot and worked at it. I tugged at the rope, hard, pulled an end free, it sprung quickly and I lost my footing and stumbled back. My back hit the wall, the same one I’d slammed into before.
The world grew bright and my eyes hurt. I looked up and the woman from the hallway was standing over me. She was speaking into a phone, a distressed voice tinged in fear. "Please, come quickly," she kept saying, over and over, "he just fell, down a staircase. Please!"
I could hear an ambulance, muffled, off in the distance. Thought I could see its flashing lights.
The woman noticed me, saw that I was moving.
"He’s awake! You hear that?" she addressed me and waved toward the outside, toward the street. "You hear that? They’re here!"
"Yeah, I hear them," I replied, softly.
That’s all I could hear. I didn’t hear the screams. Not that night.